With the expectation in Kendallville turning to Northeast 8 title or bust, this is a critical year for the Knights to set a standard. Since the NE8 opened play in 2015, East Noble has been a co-champion or the exclusive holder of the crown three times.
The Knights will kick off the season just outside the top 10 in Class 4A according to the preseason Indiana Football Coaches Association poll.
Coach Luke Amstutz has never won less than seven games in his first seven years at the school. In fact, he has never had a losing season as a head coach. Needless to say, he expects to win and it shows with his serious demeanor come football season. The trick is getting the Knights beyond that and perhaps to their first sectional title since 2003.
If anyone can lead the Knights to another title (NE8 or otherwise), it is returning quarterback Bailey Parker, who is as capable of an all-purpose player as anyone in the conference. Parker led the Knights to an unbeaten run through the conference last season and threw for 1,597 yards on 134 of 233 passing. He also ran for 797 yards on 120 carries, scored 22 offensive touchdowns and registered 55 tackles on defense, which is the best of any of the returning Knight defenders.
“Having a great returning quarterback, one of the best in the area, as well as having a really good receiving corps…I think there are some things to be really excited about,” Amstutz said.
Getting the ball moving through the air shouldn’t be an issue behind Parker’s arm and the return of seniors Gage Ernsberger and Hayden Jones, who were the second and third top receivers a year ago. Ernsberger hauled in 27 catches for 367 yards and five touchdowns while Jones caught 19 balls for 294 yards despite missing the first three games of the season. Blaine Malott had 10 receptions last year and will add depth at receiver and sophomores Nick Munson and Rowan Zolman should contribute.
“I think it might be as good of a receiving corps as I’ve had since I’ve been at East Noble,” Amstutz noted. “We have five kids that we can put out there and feel really confident in.”
One gap offensively that will need help is on the ground where Kaiden Harshberger was electric in 2018; he also was pretty good on returns and as the team’s top pass catcher. But he is gone and Jacob VanGorder, who ran for 328 yards, will take over. Who will help clear the way? 6-foot-6, 275 pound senior nose guard Leyth Al-Mohammedawi, who will be a serious calming influence up front. Donald Miller (guard) and Alex Manns (tackle) were All-NE8 2nd Team a season ago and will be aided on the line by Noah Schooley.
“I think we are flying under the radar a little bit. People see we lost some guys in Kaiden and a few of those seniors. But we are really excited about our senior class and this is a year we have been putting on our calendars as a team that is going to be big, strong and really balanced,” Amstutz said.
VanGorder and Al-Mohammedawi will also be anchors on the defense, where they were All-NE8 performers last season with VanGorder (46 tackles) as a First Team outside linebacker and Al-Mohammedawi as First Team on the defensive line. Trey Ritchie will return at defensive tackle after getting his feet wet during the 2018 season and Caden Conley can play a couple of positions for the Knights to help their versatility.
“We understand that if you are going to win games, you have to stop the run and that has been focus No. 1,” Amstutz said. “Our defensive line returns some key players. We think defensively we have a very balanced team. If we can step up and get stops and force turnovers, we are going to give our offense a chance to score a lot of points.”
Jones and Parker will provide a lot of experience in the secondary with Jones being named All-NE8 first team at cornerback and Parker as the second team safety, with each guy picking up two interceptions in 2018. Parker added 11 deflections behind the 18 deflections of team leader Brooks Miller (42 tackles), who is also back for his senior season. Logan Mitchell (50 tackles) will add even more defensive depth.
While special teams doesn’t get a ton of preseason mention, All-NE8 honorable mention punter Joe Painter is back after averaging 38.1 yards per punt and 40.2 yards per kickoff for the Knights.
The Knights have a host of all-conference performers back on both sides of the ball, giving them arguably the best returning depth at the top of the conference. They have playmakers at a ton of positions.
It also helps that this is a team that can go vertical as well as anybody in the area regardless of conference or class. Parker can throw bombs and there is a host of guys to up and get those passes, making the Knights more multidimensional than many of their counterparts, especially in conference.
WHY NOT HIGHER?
I guess we will continue to wonder how the top teams in the NE8 would stack up against the upper half of the SAC. A year ago, East Noble went 8-0 against conference opponents and 1-2 outside of the NE8. It would be nice to see some out-of-conference wins since we know the Knights are more than capable in the conference. Plus, fair or not, until we see them without Harshberger, it is fair to hold back in anointing East Noble a top-five area team.
Week 6 vs. Leo
The NE8 could be a very interesting and competitive conference. At media day, this is what Amstutz had to say about it:
“I think that it is a very open year. DeKalb and Columbia City are emerging as very talented teams this year. New Haven and Leo are always good and Norwell has taken a step forward in the last few years. I think its as good as its been since the NE8 formed,” Amstutz said. “This is as open as its been and I think you are going to see that with a very good conference season.”
So needless to say the Knights will have some fights before Week 6, but this is a big one. Last year, the game at Leo was a slugfest with both teams making big plays on both sides of the ball. The Lions replace far more than the Knights but both teams know a win here is going to be critical in keeping pace in this conference if it is so wide open. Also, while Amstutz is 3-2 against Leo while coaching East Noble, the teams sit at two wins each in NE8 play against each other; rubber matches are always fun.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Gage Ernsberger, senior, receiver/linebacker
Ernsberger is the kind of guy you want to have to make plays. He is willing to go above and beyond to help his team excel. Probably the top passing target, he is physical and athletic with an ability to rise up and make a difference. On defense, he will provide significant leadership for a team that needs to stop scoring at a better rate than a year ago.
He was named All-NE8 Honorable Mention at receiver in 2018.